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After a decade of war, the west is weak and in retreat

Western leaders no longer proclaim their desire to reorder the world.

Everyone of a certain age can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the al-Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and Pennsylvania and the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, reduced to rubble by civilian aircraft turned into weapons of mass destruction. In ambition and scale - and with their thousands of innocent victims - the events of 11 September 2001 were a terrorist attack for an age of globalisation: an age of 24-hour satellite news channels, the internet, mobile phones and the instantly replicable image.

In seeking to murder and terrify so many, al-Qaeda channelled the destructive impulses of American entertainment culture - the disaster movie, the apocalyptic computer game, the hi-tech thriller - and made of a people's uneasy fantasies a terrifying actuality. The hijackers who flew the planes into the towers must have known that they were creating images of catastrophe that would haunt our imaginings and our dreams, that their actions would have profound political and economic consequences, as they did. We were at the beginning of what would become a decade of war, which continues today and will no doubt extend long into the future.

In Mao II, published in 1991, the American novelist Don DeLillo wrote, eccentrically as it was then thought, of how terrorists and bomb-makers had replaced writers and artists as the myth-makers of our age. Their work "involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative," DeLillo wrote. "Terror makes the new future possible."

Certainly when Osama Bin Laden authorised the attacks of 11 September 2001, which were so patiently and meticulously planned, he knew that he and his suicidal operatives had the means to make the new future possible. What would that future hold for us all?

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it felt to many as if we were entering a period of darkness, as the US and its allies, principally the United Kingdom, prepared their response. What is often forgotten all these years later is that there was a sense, too, that this crisis offered an unrivalled opportunity to transform the world for the better, that it was a time of despair but also one of hope and solidarity between peoples. "We are all Americans" was the resonant headline on the front page of Le Monde the morning after the attacks.

In his speech to the Labour party conference in October 2001, Tony Blair captured this mood: "Round the world, 11 September is bringing governments and people to reflect, consider and change . . . There is a coming together. The power of community is asserting itself . . . I have long believed this interdependence defines the new world we live in." He went on: "This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon, they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder the world around us . . . 'By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we can alone.'"

The hope did not last. The goodwill that many felt for America and Americans on 11 September 2001 was wasted. The US responded to the attacks by embarking on a series of misconceived and mismanaged wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, just as Bin Laden would have hoped.

Brown University's Costs of War project estimates that the financial burden to the US of these wars is between $3.2trn and $4trn. So far, 1,752 US service personnel have been killed in Afghanistan and 4,474 in Iraq. The UK has lost 380 soldiers in Afghanistan and 179 in Iraq. The civilian death toll in Iraq has been estimated at anything between 120,000 and one million; the comparable figure in Afghanistan is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. So many lives lost and so many resources squandered - and for what? These sacrifices haven't made us feel any more secure. In an ICD Research poll conducted for the New Statesman, only 13 per cent of Britons said they felt safer today than they did on 10 September 2001.

During these wars, many of our most cherished liberal values were tarnished. Muslims everywhere were demonised and Islamophobia became respectable, even among those who purported to be on the left. The Americans implemented the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects and countenanced their torture and imprisonment, without charge, in Guantanamo Bay.

At home, following the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died, the Labour government attempted to raise the maximum period for pre-charge detention to 90 days, as it struggled to contain the dangers posed by young British Muslims radicalised by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and provoked by Saudi-funded Islamist preachers working in mosques.

Above all, the doctrine of liberal intervention, even on so-called humanitarian grounds, was gravely undermined by the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Blair's dream of a new, interdependent world order turned out to be no more than the delusion of a western triumphalist who believed that history was moving in his direction and that authoritarian states and premodern theocracies could be bombed into embracing democracy, free markets and the rule of law.

As Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP and former deputy governor of the Iraqi province of Maysan, says on page 32: "9/11 turned intervention into war. Western foreign policy since has been driven by fear, pride and guilt. The US and its allies have exaggerated the threat posed by 'failed states'. We have overestimated our power to transform those states . . . Emotions, rather than any rational analysis, trapped us in these deserts."

It could have been so different. The appalling September 2001 attacks did fleetingly create the conditions in which a new world order could have emerged, one founded on the principles of international law, with nations operating not unilaterally but more effectively and transparently through supranational organisations such as the European Union, the African Union and the Arab League. Instead, we had unilateral declarations of war. We had wars fought without any sense of what their ending might be.

The US and the UK no longer speak of victory in Afghanistan, but only of retreat and of striking deals with the hated Taliban, with whom they could have once negotiated from a position of strength rather than weakness. A decade after the attacks of 9/11, western leaders no longer proclaim their desire to reorder the world.

Ravaged by the financial and sovereign debt crises, they are struggling to adjust to decline and to accept the limits of their own reduced power. The kaleidoscope was shaken on that clear, blue September day in New York. The pieces have not yet settled and will never be allowed to settle until the lessons from the misadventures of the past decade have been learned - if they ever will be.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.